Published  24/08/2007

Up Against Jeff Wall

Up Against Jeff Wall

Museum of Modern Art, New York
25 February – 14 May 2007.

Art Institute of Chicago
29 June – 23 September 2007.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
27 October 2007 – 27 January 2008

The photography divisions of the major American art museums are currently besotted with glamour. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has already served up the glitzy chiseled beefcake of the late Herb Ritts. The Brooklyn Museum recently finished its ridiculously popular one-woman show of Photographer to the Stars Annie Leibowits. Her sometimes alarmingly invasive visual record of the last days of her dying lover Susan Sontag is not that far removed from highly paid studio shots of Nicole Kidman and Brad Pitt, but that may have been exactly what America’s most famous intellectual wanted. Sontag’s popular image as molded by the fashion magazines in collusion with the writer herself was always the Babe with a Brain. Even an apparent outsider like Diane Arbus in her celebrated shows at MoMA brought her experience as well as her cold, keen eye as a top fashion photographer to her still disturbing studies of twins, transvestites, giants and other circus freaks. Her naughty disciple Robert Mapplethorpe glamourized what many other people considered to be aberrant behavior. Nan Goldin has nurtured much the same aesthetic. Along with Andy Warhol, Mapplethorpe, Goldin and other postmodernist artists made the repellent chic with many museum curators. Likewise, Cindy Sherman combined her shrewd wit with movie studio style when saucily dressing up like Anna Magnani and Monica Vitti for her ironic glossy "Film Stills."

Contemporary photographers do not reflect the world around them, as many of their predecessors did. They refashion it. They manipulate it. Although not as famous as Leibowits, Mapplethorpe, Sherman or even Ritts, the Canadian photographer Jeff Wall has much in common with them. As his recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York demonstrated, he makes the banal glamorous. He does not seek the conventionally beautiful. At first glance, the vast ten-room show of forty-one enormous color transparencies mounted in light boxes was stunning. The clarity and translucence of these backlit cibachromes produce dazzling jewel-like detail. Ah, such lush greens and blues, such vivid oranges and rich reds. The large scale of the works seems to add aesthetic weight to even his least impressive subjects. But Wall’s imagery flattens and tends to get tiresome after viewing such an abundance of them.

Trained as an art historian, Wall now considers himself an artist of modern life. His views of dull industrial Vancouver, British Columbia, the landscape and its people, are too self-consciously artless. The meticulously and ridiculously posed trailer trash in "Shadows and Tattoos" provides a contemporary riff on Manet and Seurat. Photographs of common people doing laundry or crossing an overpass suggest Soviet Social Realism at its most banal. Wall explores surrealism, too, in the incongruously abundant sea life living in "The Flooded Grave." Perhaps the outstanding work in the show is "A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)" with its witty homage to the famous Japanese color woodcut. How did Wall get the hat to soar like that or those papers to scatter to the wind at just the right second? Apparently, he owes much to the magic of digital manipulation.

Every one of Wall's compositions is as studied as a fashion shoot. Wall had to wait for the precise moment for that spray of milk to fly in "Milk." He never wastes a shot. Unfortunately, his craft often appears less impressive than all the labor that goes into it. Wall is a master of artistic disorder and artful annihilation. Every small detail is so carefully placed in the seemingly hurricane-dismantled interior of "The Destroyed Room." There is no spontaneity, no emotion, no room for mistakes. These works are all about the photographer’s control. They are so cool that they feign indifference on the artist’s part despite all the effort they require. Even the deceptively ordinary "A View from a Night Club" looks like a spread from Vogue or Vanity Fair. It took Wall days to stage its "cast." He leaves nothing to chance.

Wall once dreamed of becoming a filmmaker, so it is not surprising that he often draws on film stills and industrial photography of the 1940s and 1950s for ideas. He distinguishes between his staged "cinematographic" pictures and more immediate "documentary" work. Many of Wall’s photographs are pure narrative and the viewer is expected to fill in the blanks, as in "Fieldwork" and "The Storyteller." Particularly disturbing is the cold, calculated composition of a well-groomed woman performing before some stiff, uncomfortably clothed and thoroughly bored children in "A Ventriloquist at a birthday party in Oct, 1947." Another picture of sluggish suburbia seems nothing out of the ordinary until one spots a couple battling the cops in "The Eviction." This image is as chilly and stagy and, yes, corny as a B movie still. The photographer has dabbled in social satire, as in "Mimic", by having a white man make an obscene racist gesture with his eye as an Asian walks by. Wall’s take on the gruesome aftermath of an Afghan massacre of a Red Army patrol in "Dead Troops Talk" should have been devastating, but despite all the stage blood and guts thrown about, his models’ shameless mugging takes all the bite of the satire and reduces it to cynical camp. Sometimes, Wall actually refers to specific literary sources, as in his pretty study of an elegantly dressed lady from Yukio Mishima’s "After Spring Snow" and the elaborately constructed interior of hundreds of light bulbs dangling from the ceiling inspired by Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.

Occasionally, Wall reaches for the sublime when he dares to throw subject matter aside to study merely texture and color in diagonal compositions of a kitchen sink or a staining bench. The austere "Poppies in a Garden" and "Sunken Area" are so refreshingly free of the visual tricks of his other work that they seem to have been created by another artist. And yet, as with most of Wall’s more staged compositions in this retrospective, there is much less here than meets the eye.

Michael Patrick Hearn

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